Suspicion is an Alfred Hitchcock movie that produces strongly polarised reactions in people and among more serious cinephiles it has to be said that the negative reactions outweigh the positive.
There are a number of reasons for this. This film is one of the more notorious examples of the combination of the Production Code and studio timidity forcing a film-maker to make a movie that was radically different from the one he wanted to make. Hitchcock himself was extremely frustrated by studio interference in the making of the film, and that in itself causes many Hitchcock fans to judge it harshly. It’s also a movie that differs in very significant ways from the novel on which it was based (Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley writing under the name Francis Iles) and that’s something of which many movie fans strongly disapprove.
It’s possible that some of the negative feelings towards this movie stem from the fact that not only does it differ from the source novel, it belongs to an entirely different genre. The novel is both an inverted mystery and psychological crime novel. The movie is a romantic melodrama with suspense elements. It’s very much what was known at the time as a women’s picture.
I think we also need to judge the movie as it exists. Hitchcock wanted a completely different ending that would have made Suspicion a completely different film. Perhaps that film would have been a better film, perhaps not. What matters is whether the film as it exists works, and whether the ending that was finally chosen works.
Before the Fact who focused on a planned murder - a man is very definitely planning to kill his wife. Suspicion is focused on a woman who thinks that her husband may be planning to kill her but she cannot be sure, and the viewer cannot be sure. It is only a suspicion. It is as its title suggests a film all about suspicion. It is about the effect that suspicion has on a marriage and most of all it is about the effect of her suspicions on the woman.
Lina has just met Johnnie (Cary Grant). Johnnie is handsome, debonair, charming and funny but he is also very definitely masculine. And he has a reputation as a bad boy. No woman could resist him and Lina certainly has no chance at all of resisting him. Especially when she has just discovered that her own parents think of her as spinsterish and have resigned themselves to the fact that she will never find a man. There is no way now that she’s going to let Johnnie go - whatever people think of her she has the handsomest most virile most charming man in the district pursuing her, and if he doesn’t pursue her hard enough then she’ll pursue him.
The first part of the movie is wildly romantic. Johnnie sweeps Lina off her feet and she loves it and we share her joy. Then the movie switches gears as Lina discovers that Johnnie is irresponsible, unreliable, untruthful and not very honest. But he’s still charming and funny and a jot to be around and this section of the movie is essentially romantic comedy, and it’s delightfully amusing. This is where Beaky (Nigel Bruce) enters the picture and adds even more touches of comedy.
Lina has Johnnie that Johnnie is a scoundrel but he’s a loveable scoundrel and we understand why she can’t stop loving him.
Then the movie switches gears yet again and we find ourselves watching a mystery suspense thriller. Lina has put certain pieces of evidence together in her mind and they add up to murder. She suspects that Johnnie is, or could be, a murderer. Perhaps he plans to murder Beaky. Perhaps he plans to murder Lina. There are pieces of evidence that support both theories.
The biggest question that needs to be raised is whether the movie cheats a little. Is Cary Grant’s performance at times deliberately misleading, making Johnnie seem either too obviously sinister or too obviously innocent and harmless? His performance just doesn’t seem consistent. OK, so Johnnie has a dark side as well as a sweet amiable side but Grant’s performance veers too sharply and wildly between the two to be totally believable. There were times when I expected him to start twirling his moustache like a Victorian melodrama villain. Cary Grant’s performance in this movie has been much praised but I’m going to be a heretic and suggest that it’s the film’s weak link. A lot of people don’t like Fontaine’s performance because Lina’s behaviour exasperates or angers them (a lot of modern critics want Lina to behave like a woman of the 21st century) but I think Fontaine is brilliant and carries the film.
I imagine that everybody reading this knows how the film ends (and in what follows I’m not revealing explicit details about the ending) but just in case I’ll add a spoiler warning anyway.
Almost everybody considers the ending to be a contrived cop-out and this is true to some extent but the ending is not necessarily as bad as some would have us believe. There are two things to bear in mind at the end. Johnnie has been caught out lying over and over again and he always comes up with another plausible lie to excuse himself. Does he do this again right at the end? And at the end we’re still seeing things through Lina’s eyes, so we may still be seeing a distorted view of reality. There is a degree of ambiguity about the ending.
Suspicion is nowhere near as bad as its detractors claim but it is a flawed film. When watching any of Hitchcock’s 1940s movies you always have to bear in mind that what you’re watching is not the movie Hitchcock wanted to make. That’s the great tragedy of Hitchcock in the 40s.
There's another interesting discussion of this film at discussions at ahsweetmysteryblog.